Of Poodle Skirts and Pomade

What is it about the ’50s that keeps igniting our imagination? On the eve of the biggest rockabilly weekend of the year, one writer investigates.

In The Taken, a soon-to-be-released noir mystery novel, the rockabilly protagonist does not attend Viva Las Vegas. I can only assume that’s because the book does not take place during the month of April. It’s the first of a trilogy, so Katherine “Kit” Craig, the fictional ’50s-loving Las Vegas journalist/crime fighter, may eventually find her way to the Orleans for the rockabilly weekender.

But Kit’s creator, The New York Times best-selling author Vicki Pettersson, cannot wait to attend April 5-8. “I’m looking forward to picking up a couple of new dresses for my summer tour, and attending the car show and burlesque showcase. My favorite thing is just snapping pictures and people-watching,” says the Las Vegas native and former Folies Bergère dancer. “It’s amazing to meet people from all over the world who live this lifestyle, and the women are so ultra-glam that they always blow me away. I’m also hoping to take a little swing around the dance floor this year—that’s new and intimidating to me, but God, it looks like fun.”

It is. I went to Viva Las Vegas for the first time last year, and I spent the entire four days floating around a fantasyland of happiness. Like Pettersson, I’m more of a looky-loo than a card-carrying member of the culture. I walked the ballrooms of vendors in the most rockabilly-esque outfit I could find in my closet. But I was only fooling myself. My hair was (gasp) flat-ironed, and I did my makeup the same as I always do. (At the weekender, you can take classes on and buy books devoted to the authentic retro styling of each.) A shameful glance at last year’s photos reveals my choice of a 100 percent polyester dress wallpapered with psychedelic ’70s flowers. What an anachronism!

I’m sort of at a loss as to why I had such a blast. Yes, music plus shopping plus dancing plus cool cars equal fun. But what is it about the ’50s (and early ’60s) that is eternally appealing? I have plenty of smarty-pants, over-thinking-it reasons. The biggest is nostalgia for a simpler and better time. In the ’50s, we were fresh off the victory of World War II and the good ol’ USA was king of the world. Since then, we’ve traded the G.I. Bill for crushing student debt, the middle class for class warfare and innovation for outsourcing. Everything else that wasn’t actually better (like percolating coffeemakers and the Cold War) is glossed over with a patina of selective memory and wistfulness. What was a legitimate fear then—say nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union—seems quaint now that we know everything turned out all right.

But smarty-pants ideas only get you so far. To really find out why the ’50s are forever, I surveyed some people who are involved. Here’s what they had to say:

Nyle Shepherd, a Brit who makes an annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for Viva (as it’s affectionately called), sees rockabilly as the soundtrack for the ultimate vacation. “I was brought up on a diet of Elvis Presley, so the rockabilly gene and the magical kingdom of Las Vegas was embedded into me from a very early age,” he says. “It is not just about the music; the social aspect is incredible. … I suppose you could liken us to a swarm of migratory birds that descends on Las Vegas for four days, gorging on rockabilly to fill our souls to keep us going for another year.”

Las Vegas-based burlesque dancer Kalani Kokonuts takes a more pragmatic approach. “It’s fun to go, but it’s also fun to go to the Ren Fair,” she says of Viva Las Vegas. “It’s the same thing. It’s reenactment; you’re reenacting a period. For the girls, it’s a reason to be hyper-feminine and you get to explore hyper-femininity. And the boys get to be boys. There’s cars and beauty and the music—everybody likes the music. Just like the Ren Fair.”

Pin-up model Claire Sinclair, whose retro demeanor beat 11 generic beauties to make her 2011’s Playboy Playmate of the Year, is attracted to the old-style fashion. She says the appeal of pencil skirts and June Cleaver dresses is that they’re sexy, figure-flattering and that they cover everything up. “That rare mystery is what makes it so attractive,” says the face (and hips and bust) of retro revival clothing store Bettie Page. Emphasis on the rare—not only has Sinclair posed nude for Playboy, but she’s also planning on celebrating her 21st birthday May 26 at Crazy Horse III.

“I’m happy living in this era,” Sinclair says, although she wishes she could visit 1964 for a month. “I think it’s cool because this era is the only era that doesn’t have its own style. It’s the only era that brings back everything from the past; we’re kind of a melting pot of everything that’s already happened.”

At 65, Rockin’ Ronny Weiser is one of the lucky few who’ve seen rockabilly through all its incarnations. And he’s loved it since he was a rebellious schoolboy in northern Italy—one with a passion for blue jeans and all things American that infuriated the priests at school.

Ronny has a record label with a devoted cult following, Rollin’ Rock Records, but he hasn’t recorded new music in about three years because he can’t figure how to make money doing so. (One profitable exception was when Quentin Tarantino put “That Certain Female” by Charlie Feathers—a song Ronny recorded on home equipment in the ’70s—on the Kill Bill: Vol. 1 soundtrack). He’s so anxious for Viva that he’s got the six-page schedule printed out and highlighted. (His recommendations include Si Cranston, Big Sandy, Stardust Ramblers, Louis and the Wildfires, Atomic Drifters and Jive Aces.) Mac Curtis, a musician he has recorded, will also be performing.

At Viva, Ronny will break out some of his finest Western wear. For instance, there’s the vintage pair of Dickies workpants. They’re gray and boring, but fold up a cuff and the pants are lined with a fabric that has a colorful Wild West scene. “To me, this is priceless,” he says, “because it tells me more about America than anything else.”


Pettersson says her favorite thing about rockabilly is living a “curated life,” one in which everything is devoted to a singular ideal of style. “I find that level of commitment admirable and fascinating,” she says. “The attention to aesthetic, living your life as art—I think it’s something we all aspire to on some level, but people who are really into the lifestyle actually do it.”  Still, I wondered, why? So I went to someone who had lived it.

“Dad, were the ’50s really better than today?” “Perhaps,” he answered, “if you were white.”

He doesn’t remember much of the era because he was 6 when it ended, but he said that cities were safer, families were closer and neighborhood kids played in the street together. I asked if neighborhood kids would’ve played outside together if they could’ve played Xbox instead. In response, he told me to call my aunt, who spent her 20s in that decade.

“Is there anything that you miss about the 1950s?” I asked.

“Everybody talks about the good old days,” she said. “But I think everyday is the best day. Today is the best day.”

So, I took my today right to the Bettie Page store, where I picked out a few retro dresses. With all the framed pinups and the leopard-print lingerie, I’m sure this place isn’t my aunt’s 1950s. But it’s mine, so I shopped on.

As soon as I was in the dressing room, I understood. I twirled in the mirror, and a cascade of red fabric and crinoline twirled with me. My waist looked impossibly small, and the rest of me was sleek yet curvy, regal and feminine. The clothes I had worn in—jeans and one of my “nicer” T-shirts—were a pile of schlubby molted skin. This wasn’t a time-travel thing, this was a how-do-I-look-today sort of thing. In this dress, I was the rockabilly journalist on Pettersson’s book cover, and why not? Since the character is fictional, I can claim squatter’s rights. I’m not about to start fighting crime, but I may attempt a little “curated life” of my own. At least for one weekend.

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